By Erika Solomon
DUBAI (Reuters) - Bahrain said on Wednesday it was setting up an independent fact-finding commission to investigate weeks of protests that rocked the Gulf Arab island after international criticism of its handling of the unrest.
The announcement comes ahead of a national dialogue, set to start on Saturday, which the government hails as a chance for reform and reconciliation in a country torn by sectarian divisions after Bahrain's Sunni rulers cracked down on pro-democracy protests led mostly by the Shi'ite majority.
Leading Shi'ite opposition party Wefaq said the investigation would have no effect on its decision whether to participate in the dialogue.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, in a speech to his cabinet, ordered the commission to investigate issues ranging from the use of violence by police and protesters to allegations of Shi'ite mosque destruction by security forces during the crackdown.
The commission will also probe the legality of mass arrests and the dismissal of around 2,000 workers which had been condemned by the United States, Britain and other Western allies.
"We still need to look at what happened to know all the details of February and March and evaluate those events as they really were," King Hamad said.
A Wefaq official said the group was still weighing whether to attend the reconciliation dialogue.
"The investigation will not have a positive or negative effect on our decision to go to dialogue," Sayed al-Mousawi said.
The king said in a statement aired on Bahrain Television the kingdom had consulted with the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights on establishing the committee.
The team will have five members, Bahrain News Agency reported, most of them from Western countries and with a background in international and human rights law.
Some 30 people were killed during the protests and the ensuing crackdown, many of them protesters or civilians. Four were policemen and four were detainees who died in police custody.
"There were victims of violence whom we cannot forget... A lack of confidence has prevailed and vision has been blurred by rumors."
Washington has been pressing Bahrain's leaders to make good on offers of dialogue with anti-government protesters and the U.N. human rights office said last week that Bahrain's trials by military courts of dozens of opposition figures bore the marks of "political persecution."
Mousawi, who is Wefaq's human rights officer, argued the limitation on the investigation to February and March would not allow the team to fully examine the dismissals of people from work or claims of torture in prison from April and May.
"It means the four people killed in jail in April will not be covered. We wonder about that," Mousawi said. He also questioned the ability of the team to be neutral.
"The royal court is funding it, so it will likely have influence."
The government says there is no systematic abuse in its jails, but has promised to investigate any incidents of torture.
Tensions have simmered in Bahrain despite the lifting of emergency law on June 1, with small protests erupting daily in Shi'ite villages that are quickly dispersed by heavily deployed police armed with tear gas and sound grenades.
Bahrain's Sunni rulers have accused pro-democracy protesters of having a sectarian agenda with backing from Shi'ite power Iran, across Gulf waters, charges the opposition denies.
(Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall)